Q&A: Rob Reilly explains why he is moving to WPP
McCann Worldgroup Creative Chairman Rob Reilly today announced he would be leaving the Interpublic Group of Cos. network to become the global chief creative officer for all of WPP.
His departure is a big blow to McCann, where Reilly has been a valuable creative asset for the past seven years, credited by McCann Worldgroup Chairman-CEO Bill Kolb for leading the group to "become the most awarded and most recognized at every one of the most important creative and effectiveness awards shows in the industry for the last five years running." McCann, which was named Network of the Year at Cannes Lions in 2019, says it is searching for his successor.
Reilly's move closely follows two major departures at McCann, former Chairman-CEO Harris Diamond—who retired at the end of 2020 and was replaced by Kolb—and Devika Bulchandani, who spent the previous 23 years with the network, most recently as president of North America. Bulchandani left last November to become Ogilvy's CEO of North America.
Reilly says there's no connection, noting that he wanted a new challenge and feels he left McCann in a better place than when he started.
Ad Age caught up with Reilly to talk more about his new gig.
The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
When’s your first day?
We’re working all that stuff out. Thinking the target date is early May. Not too far away. I have a lot of work to do here still. I loved McCann, loved working for IPG. But it’s all positive. Everyone has been great. I’m leaving this agency in the best shape with great talent.
Maybe there will be some time off in between. My amazing wife has been so supportive. She’s probably looking forward to having some time without a stressful husband. My wife certainly deserves some kind of vacation, maybe without me, I don’t know.
Have you any ideas who might replace you at McCann?
No idea. There’s a ton of talent here. It’s up to the people in charge. I’m not involved in that but available in helping make those decisions. I’m sure it will be something that is made fairly quickly. The commitment to creativity is high here so it’s an attractive job. Of course, there are a lot of attractive jobs where I’m going. Talent is the most important thing, and not just on the creative side but on the business side, too. Great work doesn’t just come from great creative people but great account, business people.
So tell me about the role. How did WPP position it to you? How will you fit into the overall company?
McCann Worldgroup is structured in a similar way holding companies are structured so there’s a lot of things that are similar. There are different agencies within Worldgroup so it was about how to help all the agencies creatively. I don’t think it’s going to be very different. But being with WPP at that level, I can go beyond the advertising networks. I’m excited to be part of that. I’m certainly going to be involved in helping the networks be successful. That is the most important thing. When you’re the biggest holding company in the world, having a creative person there is probably a good thing. I want to be the first call when something goes wrong. I just want to be there to help everybody. Just like probably Mark [Read] does for people on the business side, I want to be there for the CEOs, CCOs on the creative side. It’s amazing when you think about how these roles don’t have to be so specific. I’m just another person in the greater organization there to make sure we’re doing the best job we can for our clients.
What motivated the decision?
As a creative person, you need the brain to be stimulated. I needed to be stimulated too. I realize a great challenge for me is that I could get too comfortable. This new job is a great challenge for me and if McCann wasn’t in such a great place, maybe I wouldn’t have left. Now I hopefully can inspire, challenge and help grow a bunch of other amazing networks to do great things. It wasn’t that complicated for me either. Mark Read said ‘I want WPP to be the greatest creative company,’ not just the greatest creative holding company. Greatest creative company. I didn’t need much else. Many people have been asking, ‘Well, do you believe him?’ He said it, so I believe it.
The industry is so small, with people like Devika [Bulchandani] going to Ogilvy. I know so many people at all these companies who I’m excited to work with and who are excited to work with me. We have to support each other in this business. I want everyone to do well. It’s important. I hope creatives see [the appointment] too, the biggest holding company in the world investing in creativity at the highest level, as a great thing. I like the idea of helping as many people as possible. I like things that are bigger. Being involved with bigger companies gives you exposure to the biggest brands that have the greatest chance to impact the world.
How have you been viewing the changes at WPP with all the consolidation, the most recent example being the merger of Grey and AKQA. There are naysayers out there that believe these moves will hinder creativity rather than help it. What do you think?
I’m not there yet so I don’t know. I love change and bold moves, and we have to continue to push forward with what makes sense for the business and clients. I do always believe in transformation, it sets us up for victory in the future. A lot of agencies don’t want to evolve but they end up finding their footing in the world they’re in now. They change and adapt. Some things work and some things don’t, but I believe in trying and changing things to make sure we’re ahead. On the moves Mark [Read] has made with the current agencies and networks, I’m going to do my best to help in whatever form they are in. I’m there to help 1,000% and be supportive and a champion of creativity. I’m excited for that challenge. It’s way bigger than the job I have now. Sometimes you have to throw yourself into the pool, into the deep end.
What do you think overall of the future of the global chief creative officer role in a time when we’ve seen so many agencies moving to flatten leadership?
I guarantee if you speak to anyone who works with me they will tell you, no one is required to show me a piece of work. I’m here to guide and come up with solutions when they’re needed. I don’t believe too much in hierarchy. Creativity is a team sport. We all have to deliver and I don’t like to manage in fear. I feel it’s going to be a very collaborative back and forth at WPP. That’s really how WPP stays at the forefront of the business. It won’t be a traditional chief creative officer role. I don’t think I’ll be sitting in a pitch with everybody saying 'This is what we’re going with.' There are so many great creative leaders there already. But we all need help. I certainly do.
So what’s it been like for you working in the pandemic?
I’m challenged like everyone else. I thought the business would be significantly more challenged and wouldn’t survive in many ways but it’s incredible how people have adapted. A lot of people, a lot of brands are making fantastic work. It’s amazing how resilient we’ve been as an industry. Creativity is a thing solving a lot of the world’s problems. The fact that we have vaccines and people are getting it in such a short amount of time [since they’ve been developed], if you think about it, a lot of creativity went into that. It’s so important right now to fight for the brands. A lot of brands are making people comfortable and filling in where governments can’t. I feel proud of this industry.
We’re all doing it, this pandemic. I don’t love it. I can’t wait to be back in a time when we’re all together again. Who knows when that is going to happen. I saw Cannes saying they’re going to be back this year. I love the positivity. Maybe if you think will things to happen, they will happen. I know people are thinking that is crazy but at least Cannes is out there saying ‘Let’s be together.’ And if it’s 100% safe, I’ll be there. But there’s still a long way to go for it to be safe.
I’m in the McCann office right now. Change is good for me. I’m so used to interacting with so many people and I’ve been staring at the same damn tree for months, watching the leaves change from green to red, watching them fall off and I’m sure I’ll see them come back again. That plays with your brain.
Do you go into the office regularly?
I did before the holiday, then the cases started to came up again. I thought it was important to be in the office when this announcement happened. There’s no one really here but my respect for the organization is so high I wanted to be available if someone wanted to come in and talk. I always say there’s a good way to leave an organization and a bad way. Always intend to leave an organization better than when you started. I’m feeling good about that. Your career is based in chapters. I’m looking forward to the next one and certainly feel accomplished in this [past] one.